For the centenary of the Bolshevist Revolution, The Conservative’s Themistoklis Asthenidis interviews Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion and now a leading voice in Russian politics.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: 2017 marks the centenary year of the Bolshevist Revolution. Yet much of the evil done in the name of Communism has been forgotten, and the true picture of this historic failure is fading away. 

GARRY KASPAROV: We are getting far enough from the fall of the USSR to more accurately evaluate the deeper impact of totalitarian Communism on a society. It’s like a virus that attacks the immune system, weakening it and making it vulnerable to more lethal infections, like dictatorship and nationalism. You can see it in how poorly post-Communist countries have recovered compared to post-Right-wing dictatorships. Obviously any dictatorship is bad, but Taiwan, South Africa, and Chile, for example, all quickly became successful free-market democracies, while most post-Communist countries are still mired in authoritarianism of different kinds. The exceptions in Eastern Europe required massive investment, encouragement, and enforcement from the free world.

It’s a long discussion to get to the roots, but I believe it’s because Communism weakens the sense of the individual and responsibility. Instead of looking out for themselves, people instinctively look for a strong regime to guide them, whether it’s a Communism regime or a strongman dictator. Soviet Communism taught us that if the system didn’t work, we had to follow it even more strictly, to be more obedient slaves. The free world — democracy and the free market — is the opposite. It says that if you have successful individuals, a successful state will result. History has shown us which method works better.

Soviet Communism taught us that if the system didn’t work, we had to follow it even more strictly, to be more obedient slaves. The free world – democracy and the free market – is the opposite. It says that if you have successful individuals, a successful state will result.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: What elements of Communist rule do we see today in post-Soviet and other despotic states?

GARRY KASPAROV: Soviet Communism was always about power, right from the start. Yes, there was an underlying ideology, even a utopian one, but it was always about control and crushing the regime’s enemies. That mentality prevailed in most of the post-Soviet states, with a few brief exceptions in Russia under Yeltsin and Georgia with Saakashvili, for example.
The mandate continues to be “the state is everything” and that leads to inevitable repression whether or not there is an ideology like socialism behind it.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: You rose to fame as World Chess Champion, but you are also known as a political activist and one of the most prominent and influential Russian dissidents. In your most recent book Winter Is Coming, you discuss the autocratic regime of Putin and the threat it poses to freedom. Are you optimistic that Russia can transition into a democracy?

GARRY KASPAROV: I’m optimistic in general, in that I believe we will reach a better place, with more freedom and prosperity, and that Russia will also be included in that brighter future. But that does not mean it is inevitable, that it will happen on its own or that it will happen soon. Russia is just as capable of democracy as any nation or people, of course. There is no genetic predisposition toward dictatorship or democracy, as you can see in North and South Korea, in China and Taiwan. But Putin is poisoning the minds of Russians against democracy, and against individual freedom in general, and many of our most capable people are leaving, which will make the eventual transition even harder.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Who are the enemies of the free world and how can they be stopped?

GARRY KASPAROV: The enemies of the free world are the enemies of modernity, those who want to live in the past. Putin wants to go back to the Eighteenth Century of great regional powers that ruled by force. ISIS and the radical mullahs want to go back to an Islamic caliphate. What they have in common is the realisation that the modern world of democracy, freedom, and prosperity would be the end of their power, and so they attack to defend that power.

The free world took it for granted that this battle was over when the USSR fell. The strategies that won the Cold War were dropped almost immediately, and there is no appetite to bring them back. But they worked, and they are still needed. You don’t engage with dictators, you isolate them. You don’t appease terror sponsors, you deter them or destroy them. The free world still has a huge military and economic advantage – culturally too – if not as big as it was in 1992. But if the world’s democracies came together to set standards and to defend them, it would be more prosperous and secure, and it would also lead to more freedom worldwide as pressure mounted on the dictators. Instead, the dictators and thugs have ready access to western markets and riches, so they have no incentive to reform.

The steady decrease in global freedom is a threat in and of itself, because democracy and prosperity worldwide is the only real lasting security. Authoritarianism is the source of most of the world’s ills, from poverty to terrorism. 

Themistoklis Asthenidis: What are the threats to liberal democracies today?

GARRY KASPAROV: The steady decrease in global freedom is a threat in and of itself, because democracy and prosperity world-wide is the only real lasting security. Authoritarianism is the source of most of the world’s ills, from poverty to terrorism. Moral relativism is a mortal threat, pretending that dictatorships and brutal theocracies should be treated with equal respect to democracies that protect human life and human rights. More concretely, as Putin is illustrating very clearly, dictatorships now have the ability to attack targets anywhere in the world very easily thanks to digital weapons and misinformation. It’s a massive effort, and the free world is still pretending it can ignore it.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Francis Fukuyama, who has highly praised your book, argued that the collapse of USSR would give way to the domination of Western liberal democracies. Yet Communism and authoritarianism persist in large parts of the world. “The U.S.S.R. Fell – and the World Fell Asleep”, you recently noted.  Has Western leadership since 1990 failed to make the world more free?

GARRY KASPAROV: Absolutely failed. It was understandable, to a degree, to want to celebrate, to be friends with everyone, and to think that even the last holdouts like Cuba, China, North Korea, et al, would simply fade away in the tide of liberal democracy. But this was naïve and lazy, at best. Instead, the early 1990s desperately needed the leadership like Harry Truman showed after the Second World War in constructing the institutions of a new world order. But Clinton, president of the world’s unmatched superpower at the time, had no vision, and just wanted to put the Cold War in the past, ignoring the new challenges ahead. The United Nations was designed to freeze conflicts, not solve them, or to project democracy values. It became obsolete when the Cold War ended, but nothing new was built to consolidate the gains of the fall of the Iron Curtain. And for a decade we’ve been sliding backward.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: All global problems — poverty, social exclusion, environmental degradation, religious extremism, lack of innovation, conflict, abuse of human rights — are found in countries with authoritarian institutions. These are symptoms of failing institutions, and yet the root cause of this failure is hardly addressed.

GARRY KASPAROV: I’ve written about this extensively, including a recent article with the founder and director of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), Thor Halvorssen. It’s the most important fight in the world, and should be treated as such. Instead, at best the free world’s leaders and citizens deal with the symptoms here and there. “Regime change” is such a big and tainted phrase, but of course we should desire and press for the end of the many brutal regimes that cause so much suffering. Reagan called the USSR “the evil empire” and was totally correct. Today, few are willing to call evil what it is, and so it grows.

You fight inside and outside, but first you have to recognise it’s a problem and end the hypocrisy of treating these regimes like normal allies. Do business with them if you must, I understand economic necessity, but never stop pressing for reforms, whether it’s with hostile states like Russia and Iran or supposed allies like Saudi Arabia. Put human rights in the centre and you will get results. If it’s just another side issue, it’s easily ignored.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: How does the HRF protect human rights?

GARRY KASPAROV: HRF focuses on uniting, educating, and supporting dissidents and dissident movements in unfree states – and raising awareness of their fights elsewhere. The Oslo Freedom Forum is our centrepiece event, bringing together dissidents and speakers from all over the world to share their stories and techniques for resisting. It’s a remarkable event. Another area of focus is calling out the hypocritical democratic governments and western institutions that often provide aid and comfort to dictatorships instead of holding them to account.

“Regime change” is such a big and tainted phrase, but of course we should desire and press for the end of the many brutal regimes that cause so much suffering. Reagan called the USSR “the evil empire” and was totally correct. Today, few are willing to call evil what it is, and so it grows.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Many of President Trump’s critics suggest that he has authoritarian tendencies and that he poses a threat to democracy. Some even compare him to Vladimir Putin. Can the president of one of the world’s most advanced democracies ever become a threat to liberty and democracy? 

GARRY KASPAROV: Any democratic leader can become an enemy of global democracy simply by doing nothing. Inaction is also a choice, as epitomised by Obama’s eight years of failure on the international front. His mandate to be the ­“anti-George W Bush” was clear, but his retreat from the world was too far, too fast, and we see the results everywhere.

Domestically, it’s very easy for an elected leader to distort democratic institutions. As Trump’s opponents are now discovering, much of a democracy is based on tradition and habit, not law. People keep being shocked, “Can Trump really do this? Can he really do that?” Well, yes, because people trusted that he would act more or less like every other president before him. Instead, because of who he is – a man with no scruples, no experience, and no past in public service – he is exposing all the cracks in the system everyone took for granted. In a way it’s good, because Americans should use this lesson to repair those institutions against future abuses.

This is always the key, and it’s the lesson from what happened to Russia with Yeltsin. We were so afraid of a Communist return that we weakened democratic institutions to support one man, one party. This always backfires, because then Putin got in and continued to rip up those fragile institutions. Focus on the law, strengthen the institutions, not the person or party in charge at the moment. If you like it when Obama abuses executive power but then complain about it when Trump does the same, you are part of the problem.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Twenty-five years after the collapse of one of the most murderous systems ever devised by human intelligence, the ills of Communism tend to be forgotten. Regressive socialism as well as populism are on the rise in the US and in Europe. We are even witnessing an attempt to whitewash the crimes and atrocities of Communism; after Cuba’s long-ruling dictator Fidel Castro died in November 2016, the President of the European Commission Junker called him “a hero for many” and Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau praised the ruthless tyrant as “a remarkable leader”. Hundreds of millions of people today still live under similar oppressive regimes in North Korea, Venezuela, Taiwan and many other countries. Is the rise of socialism a threat to individual freedoms and democracy?

GARRY KASPAROV: Yes, because people don’t understand what it means. Obviously the socialism of Bernie Sanders isn’t the totalitarianism of the USSR. But many have forgotten what inevitably happens with massive increases in state power and control of resources. You never get that power back, at least not without a fight. Americans and other rich nations talking about socialism is a luxury paid for by the success of capitalism, never forget that. Socialism isn’t a synonym for being generous or empathetic, as many young people want to believe. It gives up individual freedom, first and foremost, and that’s fine for some as long as the government is doing what they want. But that never lasts for long.

When the pie shrinks, when growth slows, the big guys have an advantage in fighting for the pieces. 

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Is there a moral obligation on Western liberal democracies to promote democracy, and what is the best way?

GARRY KASPAROV: Having lived it from the other side, I feel very strongly that Western democracies have a moral obligation to project and defend those values elsewhere. Not just a moral obligation, but it makes them safer and more prosperous as well. Building walls, moral relativism, America First, these are all excuses for cowardice and weakness that always end badly. Small outreach efforts aren’t enough. Aid should be increased massively because it’s more moral, more effective, and a lot cheaper than the terror attacks and military interventions that inevitably occur when there is a power vacuum.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Ronald Reagan famously said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” What is the role of the conservative movement in this discussion? How can the conservative movement defend, preserve and promote freedom.

GARRY KASPAROV: It’s about values and sticking to them regardless of the person or party. It means standing up for these values at home and abroad, all the time, not just when and where it is convenient politically. Conservative doesn’t mean being against change in the world. You can be quite liberal on social issues, for example, as I generally am, while being strong and consistent on individual freedom, free markets and trade, and other civil and human rights. A modern conservative movement should realise that and promote that truth. People want strength and stability, but make the error of putting that desire into individual leaders and parties instead of values and policies, which leads to erosion and corruption.

If you like it when Obama abuses executive power but then complain about it when Trump does the same, you are part of the problem.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: How can free markets and economic institutions lead to global liberty and prosperity, and create freer people and nations?

GARRY KASPAROV: The free market has brought billions of people out of poverty. It is the greatest engine of prosperity ever created. The massive inequality we are seeing today, and it’s growing, is a huge problem but it is not the result of the ambitious, unfettered free market. It’s the opposite, a lack of ambition and a lack of big thinking that created the boom in the first place. When the pie shrinks, when growth slows, the big guys have an advantage in fighting for the pieces. Inequality drops when everything is growing because labour is in demand, wages rise, the virtuous cycle. When you have financial tricks and political favours instead of real growth, of course the average worker is going to lose out, and that’s been happening in general since the 1970s.

This is as much a cultural shift as a policy one, and it will take time to change the timid culture that we live in today. We went from wanting a better life for our kids to wanting to guarantee our own gains, and that short-sighted, selfish mentality has limited growth and freedom as well. If people start dreaming big again, the politicians and companies will follow.